Is nationalism an asset or hindrance in today's globalized world?

The Strive for a Brave New (World's) Poland's History

Jan Charvát

Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic

Faculty of Social Sciences

Undergraduate student of International Relations and European Studies

Ever since the new Polish government has been formed in November 2015 by the election winner, national-conservative Law and Justice party, Poland has taken many turns towards what is being hailed as "rising up from their knees". The nature of these "turns" varies from ignoring verdicts of the constitutional court that denounce certain government actions as illegal and authoritarian to key party figures proclaiming their will to ban abortion in accordance with the Catholic. The one crisis that however has both the least echo abroad and probably the most far-reaching potential is the strive to rewrite Poland's history so that it complies with the party vision of an independent Polish nation that regains its sovereignty.

Just like the Soviets 25 years ago, now the Russians promote their own, nationalistic vision of history of the "Great Patriotic War" that leaves them being the ultimate good guys that did nothing but bled for the freedom of their Motherland with little if any official recognition of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, massacres such as that in the Katyń Forest, or genocides committed by the regime (and therefore by its people – the nation) not only in the occupied Baltic states. Poland of today is shifting towards promotion of history "from the Polish point of view". Even though this may seem as not as catastrophic, after all Poles did suffer enormously during the Second World War, the revisionist ideas are not limited to this war alone and even more stunningly, they can be seen in every level of governance, which the Law and Justice party ever had access to.

A fairly good example of this is the time when the office of the mayor of Warsaw was held by the late Lech Kaczyński (former president and a brother of current head of the Law and Justice party Jarosław Kaczyński who hails the fatal plane accident to be a Russian assassination). In this post, he opened a museum dedicated to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 named rather sententiously the Warsaw Rising Museum. This aforementioned "rising" is clearly seen only minutes after entering the building. Screen showing us an animation of German aggression depicts the territorial changes of the Central Europe as Austria is annexed by Germany and mere months after that, Czechoslovakia has to cede big parts of its territory to Germany and Hungary under the Munich Agreement. However the map stops with these two countries and does not show us how Poland took this opportunity to demand and later occupy and annex Těšínsko/Zaolzie – the contested coal-rich region with strategic infrastructure the Czechoslovaks and Poles fought over in 1919.

Although it is possible to argue that this annexation had nothing to do with the uprising, the lack of its acknowledgement is easily felt by someone that is familiar with it. What is worse, the rest of the museum's exhibition carries on in the same spirit. In the same room, there is possible to see a matchbox on top of which a Reichsadler holding a swastika is printed. What is fascinating about this matchbox is the accompanying text stating that many things bore the same emblem during the occupation period, including a saccharide sweetener which had turned out to obtain a bitter taste due to the imprint. The sweetener is nowhere to be seen.

However likely it is that the taste could actually be less sweet than we are used to, this being one of the first exhibits of the very first room, it is not impossible for a well-read visitor to feel this bitter sensation in his own mouth. Not because of the historical saccharide sweetener being offered there to prove the point made, but rather because by this time, only minutes after entering the building, the visitor should feel the lack of objectivity and detachment that a true museal institution cannot cope without. Although it might seem improbable to find any mention of collaboration of this brave nation, the visitor can be proven wrong by a caricature of a Wehrmacht soldier going arm in arm with a pig that is supposed to symbolise the despise held towards Polish girls dating German soldiers. This is however the one and only mention of collaboration whatsoever.

The problem that we should be having with this institution is not that it commemorates the feelings many Poles surely held towards the occupation forces, but that this institution does this calling itself a museum rather than a memorial which is pretty much the same thing as if Anne Frank's diary was proclaimed a history textbook. Of course it is possible to learn a lot about the age and sorrows of Dutch Jews reading through its pages, however there is a stark difference between consuming memory either from the diary or the Warsaw Rising Museum and studying unbiased historical facts. People tend to see no difference between the two.

Even more horrid it is to know that the Polish do not stop cherrypicking when it comes to memories and facts related to the occupied Warsaw. Minister of Education, Anna Zalewska even being quoted by TVN saying that the Massacre of Jedwabne, where Polish villagers burnt Jewish men, women and children alive to get hold of their land, can be regarded a “matter of opinion“. The government later made it illegal to refer to the concentration camps in the occupied Polish territory as the "Polish Death Camps". All in order for enabling the Polish state to distance itself from the guilt, going as far as making public mentions of it punishable for up to three years imprisonment.

It goes without a question that this resembles today's Russia where the Highest Court ruled that the Soviet Union did not jointly invade Poland alongside its then-allied Germany under the premise of Molotow-Ribentropp pact that divided Eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin. That it resembles the same country that is portrayed by many polish right-wing nationalist conspiracy theories as a hostile nation, guilty of assassinating the aforementioned former president Lech Kaczyński. Conspiracy theories that are given validity by the Antoni Krauz's movie flick “Smoleńsk“ depicting the accident as a bombing onboard the plane. It is important to state that Gazeta Wyborcza published an article about this movie being screened for school children in the Gdańsk agglomeration on the premise of the children getting a “patriotic education“ to strengthen the ties the peers have to their nation.

The same city however offers a flickering glimpse of hope in the form of the Museum of the Second World War that was supposed to open early 2017. Instead of promoting something largely biased so that the story only depicts the heroism of the brave Poles, as we could expect from another memorial, it actually tries to focus on conveying the message of the war horrors not limited only to Poland, but all its theatres around the world. It would however be unwise, for hope to be perceived as something that can be sustained, as the Minister of Culture and National Heritage Piotr Gliński is determined to merge this museum with the (not yet existing) Museum of Westerplatte. Officially in order to “minimalise the operating costs“.

The inter-ministry 'expert reviews' by Piotr Semka – a right-wing journalist – Jan Żaryn – a former historian turned Law and Justice senator – and Piotr Niwiński – a historian and a member of the Polish National Interest Institute 2010 of Lech Kaczyński, however leave one wonder whether the reviews proclaiming the exhibition “not being catholic and patriotic enough“ and “not at all stressing the positive side of the war – that is toughening men“ really had nothing to do with the decision of the minister, which will make him able, once the merger is complete, to reshape the museum's leadership and exhibition according to the Law and Justice Party's needs.

Once this glimpse of hope finally disappears, in a world that slowly becomes so dystopian even Aldous Huxley could be proud of it, maybe all that it is going to take is the Poles to swallow enough non-existing saccharide sweeteners just as the citizens of the Brave New World did with the fictional drug called Soma. Maybe then will they feel enough bitterness against everyone that is not as Polish, catholic or patriotic as they are to get them through the fact that rather than for the world to see them get up from their knees, it saw them devolve into deformed and spiteful versions of their former selves. Nationalism therefore is both an asset and a hindrance. An asset used in the destruction of nations unable to withstand its negative pressures and a hindrance of nations to prevail.

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